Political Culture: Of Afghanistan, and a Girl From Nantucket

Written by Current Events, Political Culture

It was such a simpler time, that summer of 2001. Remember it? That last season of America’s (cyclical) innocence shimmers in the memory, sorta like those gauzy images of lovebirds Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby – images so blurry they make you wonder if you need to adjust the focus on your TV. Ah, for those halcyon days! … when the only Washington story most of us cared about was the fate of Chandra Levy, and the most pressing topic on George Bush’s plate was stem cells (because he sure as hell wasn’t paying attention to al Qaeda).

Back then, the Taliban were a nasty band of fundamentalist cusses about whom we knew rather little – apart from the facts that they oppressed their women, didn’t care much for poppy growing, and were somehow in cahoots with that bin Laden guy we’d been hearing about. That summer the biggest Taliban-related news was a minor international uproar over their peculiar decision to use small explosives and machine-gun fire to attack a pair of massive Buddha statues that had been carved out of Afghan cliffs a couple millennia earlier. Meanwhile, a fascinating story emerged (I don’t remember where) about the last two remaining Jews in Kabul, and their daily struggle to observe their cultural traditions despite the Taliban’s strict enforcement of Sharia laws concerning everything from beard length to public worship.

It’s a story that has shown remarkable legs through the years, partly because of this juicy detail: The two aging men were living in the ruins of a synagogue … and they weren’t speaking to one another! Their saga has spawned at least two darkly comic plays: My Brother’s Keeper played in Edinburgh and London in 2006, while The Last Two Jews of Kabul premiered off-off-Broadway last year. Much earlier than that, during those happy-go-lucky days of summer 2001, that first article had inspired me to write what remains my one and only original limerick. So if you’ll forgive my mispronunciation of the Afghan capital…

There was just one Jew left in Kabul
His beard shaven, by government rule
But he was much too distinct
In his lower precinct
So the Taliban shot off his tool

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I’m sure you’re wondering what could possibly be my point in dredging up all this (literally) “pre-9/11 thinking.” Could it be I’ve been conditioned by President Obama’s current orgy of analysis to take my sweet time getting to the point when it comes to Afghanistan – to “dither,” as it were? Nah … My point is actually this: When I wrote my little poem nearly 8½ years ago, the Taliban could still be laughed at, even though they posed an existential threat to those two Jews (and a mortal threat to those statues), and they had implemented an alarming program of discrimination against a female population that had always been discriminated against anyway. Those issues, as it turned out, paled in comparison to the danger that emanated from al Qaeda’s Taliban-approved training camps; still, in summer 2001 the notion of America punishing the Taliban for any of that stuff by occupying their country for a decade with 40 (or 60, or 80) thousand troops would have been deemed preposterous — even by neocons who were already hellbent on punishing Saddam Hussein for similar transgressions, and by similar means.

Yet that’s pretty much precisely the point we’re at today – Obama is considering a major ramping up of U.S. forces to save Afghanistan from Taliban crazies who (for real, this time) pose no discernable threat to anyone outside that country’s borders. So why is this even a serious topic for contemplation? Tell us, Mr. President, why is this decision taking so damn long – and why does it seem so much more likely that you’ll give General McChrystal at least some of the 40,000 additional troops he wants, rather than do the responsible thing and get us the hell out of there?

We all know why. Obama long ago deemed Afghanistan “the necessary war,” the one (unlike Iraq) that we were justified to start in the first place, the one in which we had some real international consensus behind our actions – and the one that needed to be finished, particularly considering how badly Bush had bungled it. Talking up Afghanistan was a useful strategy for the Obama campaign, allowing him to bolster his peace-through-strength bona fides while simultaneously reminding the electorate what a bunch of fuck-ups Bush’s Republicans were. In retrospect, it’s difficult to imagine that Obama would have gotten past Hillary, much less McCain, without being willing to double down on at least one of Bush’s two occupations. And once he became president, it was (and remains) difficult to imagine him abandoning that stance – particularly with the perpetually pro-war GOP grading his every move for its supposed anti-Americanism.

But while there is something to the idea that the U.S. should finish what it started in the fall of 2001, does anybody still remember what it was we set out to do in the first place? And even if we jog the memory banks – it was something about denying al Qaeda a safe haven and facilitating the creation of a stable, “democratic” government, I think – does anybody really believe the latter of those goals is still achievable?

It seems McChrystal and congressional Republicans would like nothing better than to hit some invisible “reset” button, start over and do things right this time – the same sort of vision Obama himself encouraged last year (and again this past spring, when he announced his first major policy shift for Afghanistan). But if there’s one thing we should have learned from recent events in that country, there is no reset button. Hamid Karzai’s government is, and to a great extent always has been, a fraud, and is hardly the kind of institution we should be propping up at the cost of American lives and dollars. Our NATO allies have largely bailed out on us, and it’s folly to imagine they will re-commit themselves just because Obama does. The American people have turned against this endeavor in droves. And, most important, all our efforts over the past eight years seem to have done little to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, without whose support our “nation-building” inevitably devolves into its far-less-benevolent cousin, empire building. The simple fact is, America has proven it has neither the talent nor the stomach for nation-building. And after all this time, the Afghan people clearly prefer the Taliban to us – and the Taliban aren’t leaving, ever, no matter how long we stay.

Even that old saw of “defending our vital national-security interests” doesn’t hold water anymore, really. If there’s one thing Bush’s Afghan strategy actually accomplished – if “accomplished” is the right word — it was driving al Qaeda out of the country (rather than destroying it altogether). Bin Laden and nearly all his minions are in Pakistan now; the best military estimates put the number of al Qaeda operating in Afghanistan at fewer than 100. Even if the Taliban succeeded in wresting control of their homeland back from Karzai’s crooked regime, why would al Qaeda bother crossing the mountains again when they’re having such a high time in a country we can’t invade?

That’s our principal quandary in central Asia – figuring out how to work together with, or else work around, the Pakistani government to keep al Qaeda from reconstituting a legitimate threat to us and our interests. (And, oh by the way, to keep nuclear-armed Pakistan from itself becoming a threat, in part because of Taliban destabilization in Islamabad.) That’s a valid national-security pursuit, and it will require lots of strategizing, lots of intelligence-gathering, lots of covert and overt law-enforcement/military work, and lots of that hearts-and-minds stuff that Bush sucked at but which comes naturally to Obama. (The only folks he can’t seem to win over are Republicans, which says a lot more about them than it does about him.)

What safeguarding our interests in central Asia doesn’t require, and hasn’t for years, is a continued presence of tens of thousands of American troops in Afghanistan. It certainly would be a shame to leave unfinished whatever construction and infrastructure projects we’ve launched there, and it clearly would cost us a bit of our “We Are the Champions” self-esteem if the Taliban succeed in retaking Kabul and undoing whatever thin threads of democracy and civil rights we’ve helped establish. But you know what? Those things are probably going to happen at some point anyway, no matter how long we stick around. Until then, our maintenance of a “heavy footprint” in Afghanistan will simply be a matter of throwing good money after bad, and throwing away the lives of more young Americans after our goals have already become unattainable.

My thinking on all of this, like that of many Americans (including prominent conservatives like George Will), admittedly has shifted somewhat over the past year as Afghanistan has taken a turn for the worse. Obama was smart to emphasize that country over Iraq during the campaign, and perhaps he was even smart to give last spring’s “mini-surge” a chance to right Bush’s wrongs. But now that we’ve seen the Taliban renew its stranglehold despite our troops’ best efforts – and particularly now that we’ve heard the Pentagon begin spouting the same nonsense about Afghanistan that it’s been spewing about Iraq for years (stuff like “when their troops stand up, we’ll stand down”) – we should recognize that continued occupation is going to bring considerably diminished returns, with no additional benefit to our interests.

In short, it’s time to get out of the way and let the Afghans determine their own future, because they’ve made it clear they don’t want us to do it for them. Total abandonment is not required – we should keep some Special Forces troops and unmanned firepower in the vicinity (based perhaps in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, or at sea) to pursue al Qaeda when we get good leads. Apart from that, though, it’s time for us to dig ourselves out of this Graveyard of Empires – and it’s time to return, at long last, to our “pre-9/11 mentality,” at least as it concerns a nation that no longer poses a real threat to our national security.